Thursday, 29 November 2012

Tradition and Innovation in the Craft of English:

Reconnaissance for a War on Aesthetic Poverty

It may thus be well to make a reconnaissance; to go from place to place, surveying the field from different angles and levels, now far, now near, that we may form a reasonable notion of what it all portends, and how and why this crisis has come upon us—this cataclysm of birth.

                           Louis Sullivan, Democracy: A Man-Search, p. 4

The future cannot be predicted, but it can be invented.
                           Dennis Gabor, Inventing the Future

February 1966


A Heady Challenge 

The report which follows describes an odyssey which began two years ago on Market Street in San Francisco, where the National Council of Teachers of English was holding its annual convention. Professor Erwin Steinberg, then director of Project English, asked me point-blank how I would like to make films for the U.S. Office of Education on new and promising techniques in teaching English. Inasmuch as every aspiring filmmaker is looking for angels, his question found an eager affirmative.

A Pragmatic Response

Between that heady moment of promise in San Francisco and my first meeting with Dr. Thomas Clemens of the U.S. Office of Education Media Dissemination Branch (sociological qualms), I had some soberer second thoughts. True, I wanted very much to be a practicing filmmaker. True, since I began teaching English in a seventh-grade English-Social Studies program at East Lansing (Michigan) High School in 1952, I had been a fiery believer in educational innovation in my chosen craft of teaching English. But my apprenticeship—two years at the tenth and twelfth grades at East Lansing, a summer stint at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and a year as an instructor of freshman and sophomore English at Trenton (New Jersey) State Teachers College—had given me many misgivings about “aids” in general, and the films, so-called, which were being used specifically in support of the English curriculum. I tried to express these misgivings in “The Public Arts” department of The English Journal when I argued we needed “printed aids” (good criticism) to the newer media which dominate the popular consciousness perhaps more than we need (if at all) the near- and non-films which (I began to believe) infested our curriculum.

Standards in Popular Culture

Moreover, a Fund for the Advancement Fellowship in 1955-56 to study the popular culture industries in New York City convinced me that our received clichés about the anti-cultural biases of the people who run our secular media were not wholly relevant. Indeed, as I watched Life’s Art Editor Bernard Quint lay out a weekly issue with Managing Editor George P. Hunt, far from feeling contempt, I began to wonder if there wasn’t really more taste-making going on in Rockefeller Center than in most classrooms. The standards were higher, the talents were greater, the desire to move ahead of rising levels of American taste was unmistakable in the integrity of its conviction. As I talked with Richard Griffith, the film curator of the Museum of Modern Art, I discovered there were institutions outside the academic establishment which were more coherently and intellectually imaginative than a great many formal educational institutions. And because the Ford year off the line allowed me, say, to watch TV director Arthur Penn give preliminary collaborative shape to an original teleplay by Abby Mann in the off-hour quiet of the Roselund Ballroom, I simply could never accept any longer the unearned sense of superiority the American intellectual feels (not thinks) about the new media.

A Paradox of Academic Ignorance

Indeed, I began to wonder if the death of indigenous drama on American television was not as much a result of the bad thinking we academicians brought to the rise of the new medium as to the bad finagling of the Hollywood speculators who gave the overt coup de grace to a promising minor art form. Life of the new kind we disparagingly and despairingly call mass culture, I learned that year in New York, has more in it than we ever dreamed of in the facile philosophies of our Faculty Clubs.

In 1957-59, as holder of a Carnegie Post-Doctoral Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania, I got further perspective on the simple-sounding task of “using the newer media to teach English.” There I developed a new course to examine, Socratically, what the new forces of mass production and communication had done and were doing to the quality of American life. My essential conclusion was that the humanities in mass education were radically out of sync with the kind of aesthetic and moral decisions this new kind of society exacted from the common man. I pondered the paradox that the most useful analysis of these new conditions had been extra-academic (e.g. Gilbert Seldes’s The Seven Lively Arts (1924) and Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization (1934). More exasperating was the observation that it wasn’t until a full generation later that the best academicians began to give as equivalently valuable perspectives on the new human milieu—e.g. John Kouwenhoven’s Made in America: The Arts in Modern Civilization (1949) and Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950), to suggest two intramural works which have conditioned all of my subsequent observations and speculation.

In 1959-61 I then had the good fortune to work with one of the intellectual pioneers of an adequate humanistic criticism of popular culture, Gilbert Seldes, in organizing the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, a graduate school intended to employ the intellectual and imaginative resources of the humanities in preparing professionals for responsible craftsmanship in the newer media. That opportunity provided me an invaluable education in the complexities of involving Ivy traditions with the crass realities of popular culture.

A further perspective on the troubling ambiguities of civilizing the newer media by using them for humanistic purposes came in 1961-62 when I became first director of the Institute of American Studies at the East-West Center of the University of Hawaii. My task there was to encourage academicians to use the newer media to interpret the meaning of American civilization to Asian nationals learning how to modernize their countries under U.S. fellowships. Just as one never really knows a poem until he tried to teach it, so one does not truly comprehend his own culture until he tries to explain it to a more or less unsympathetic foreigner.

Most recently, I have been chairman of the English Department at Beaver College, where I have returned to the teaching of American Literature, the subject for which my graduate training prepared me, and which my interim commitment to the bog of mass culture unhappily has kept me from—given the narrow biases of the departmental system. There, ironically, in the freedom of an unbureaucraticized liberal arts college, I have been most free to pursue the innovations my interdisciplinary degree in American Culture (Western Reserve, 1957)—with two fields in American Literature and one each in American philosophy, art, and history—had encouraged me to pursue.

This thumbnail academic autobiography is not idly prefixed to this report. I regard it as a catalog raisonné of my biases as well as my (perhaps) useful differences. I suspect a report which goes so much against the grain of what is in humanistic education in America will be more understandable if not more credible if the writer suggests the intellectual itinerary which prompted him to bring back such a minority report.

The Vices of Empiricism

For it was this academic hegira, neatly balanced (I like to think) between the world of affairs and the realm of ideas, which is ultimately responsible for the speculation that follows. I say ‘speculation’ advisedly, for as an undergraduate philosophy major at a Jesuit institution (University of Detroit, 1949), with some graduate training and a continuing interest in the philosophies of history and of science, I also believe that our enterprise is insufficiently theoretical, even, God save the un-American remark, excessively empirical and anti-metaphysical. This philosophical naiveté, in fact, shows in the helter-skelter of our approach to many problems, including using newer media to teach English. My training and my hunches make me question rather fundamentally the ad hoc quality of most American educational innovation. Our virtues are our vices, however; and while flying by the seats of our pants has paid off handsomely in some sections of American life, it has, I should argue here, failed signally and abysmally in others, in fact in our very own field above all.

This instant vita, then, is more than preliminary attitudinizing. It explains, for example, why I rejected the original proposal of the U.S. Office of Education—that I simply make films spreading the good word of significant innovations in the craft of English. In my judgment, each message demands a particular medium or array of media, for maximum effect. This is an aesthetic issue of the first order, and one which should interest English teachers intrinsically, this act of judgment in deciding which manner most suits the matter at hand. I agreed, then, to address myself precisely to the problem of which media were right for which messages under certain circumstances.

A Multi-Media Report

This “report,” then, may appear strange in its form as well as in its contents. Since its rationale was the quest for ways of accelerating innovation within the craft of English teaching, it is appropriate that is should include new, or at least underused, ways of reporting. Hence, appended are two radio series, “Talking Sense” (13 fifteen-minute interviews recorded at the Ninth International Conference on General Semantics), and “Literacy 1970” (13 fifteen-minute conversations with leading policymakers in English); both series have been presented to the National Educational Radio Network (NER) with the expressed hope that such series can become a pattern for NCTE-NER collaboration in the future. This report also includes the raw materials for sound filmstrips and films (transparencies, tape, and footage) on two critical problems—teaching the disadvantaged in primary schools and teaching generative rhetoric in high school. Preliminary screening of those materials by U.S. Office of Education officials in Washington makes me hopeful that funds will be given to finish producing these teaching materials and that they will become prototypes for series.

An Idea Bank for English

Through a series of questionnaires to state education departments and a mailing list of opinion leaders in the National Council of Teachers of English, we have identified a group of teachers like Thelma Hutchins teaching Detroit’s disadvantaged at the primary level and Russel Hill teaching generative rhetoric at the secondary. Their idealism and their styles need to be known in the profession, both to teachers already at work through national conventions, local conferences, and departmental meetings, and through teacher education courses. We hope the Hutchins and Hill projects will be promptly approved so that we go back to our Idea Bank and get more fresh ideas circulating in our craft through photoessays, filmstrips, 8-millimeter film loops, and 16-milimeter sound movies. I would suggest also that we not limit circulation to educational media. Just as English teachers begin to realize that the most “educational” films are sometimes showing at the local theatre or on television, so our story of educational innovation increasingly interests the public at large.

Long Range / Short Range

In this report I have tried to do two different but related things: to dig for reasons for the unsatisfactory response of the humanist to mass education and communication; and to suggest a few very specific ways that the humanist can begin to use mass communication to help solve the problems of mass education. Both perspectives are essential. The first is long-range; the second, immediate. Without the former satisfactorily analyzed, we shall never establish a wiser relationship between mass education and communication; without the latter we shall never really have confidence in mass communication as a legitimate part of the humanistic enterprise.

I have been in the humanists’ orbit long enough to know the risks I take in pushing candor to the limits in this report. On the one hand, I know that the educator-audio visual group will find unconvincing my conviction that only really serious art, firmly confronted, can unleash the human energies needed to extricate us from a depressing array of morasses. On the other, I know that the humanists’ century-long sneer-in at mass communication ill disposes them to see in the media as art authentic solutions to frustrating educational dilemmas.

I’m sorry. That’s the way it looks to me: the breach between the sentimentalists who run things in America and the predetermined idealists who feel we’re already too ruined to worry is exactly the cleavage this essay proposes to diagnose. Had I not the precedent of the irrelevance of the 17th-Century British university intellectuals as well as the firm conviction that America has become a middle-class ancien regime run by what C. Wright Mills called crackpot realists, I should not risk the hubris this essay seems to imply. So be it. This is the way I see it.

Beyond Bureaucratese

I have written this report as a personal essay as an experiment in bureaucratic communication. Having been so appalled at the newspeakishness of bureaucratese, I now run the risk of seeming impertinent. Others perhaps will find a happier medium than either. My only regret is that resisting committee-like diction tends to obscure the contribution of John Bigby to the report. A former mass-media student of mine at the University of Santa Rosa (California) for several years, thus possessing a rare combination, solid training in the liberal arts with an adventurous approach to mass communication. He has been indispensable every step of the way. And Judith Quigg showed in her work as project secretary that the more responsibility one give undergraduates, the more they relish taking, a phenomenon our educational routines don’t take nearly enough note of. I should also like to thank the administration of Beaver College, especially Dean Margaret LeClair, for extending the greatest latitude to us in the execution of our project.

                                                      Patrick D. Hazard

30 Août 1965

Place de Fontenoy


N.B. Part II, “Strategy,” is possibly too ambitious an effort to explain for myself and other English teachers why the humanities are so estranged from mass society and mass education. There is so little of this kind of speculation that everyone ought at least to try to define the issues as I have here. The naturally skeptical are advised to begin with Part III, “Tactics,” which is concerned with setting priorities in a war on aesthetic poverty. Part IV, “Logistics,” tries to anticipate road blocks and practical difficulties.


Humanist scholars have been accused of being overly genteel, contemptuous of popular culture, snobbish and anti-democratic after the fashion of their aristocratic Renaissance progenitors, backward looking, hostile to the present, fearful of the future, ignorantly petulant about science, technology, and the Industrial Revolution—“natural Luddites.” “It is a sad thought indeed that our civilization has not produce a New Vision,” a modern technologist complains, “which could guide us into the new ‘Golden Age’ which has now become physically possible, but only physically…Who is responsible for this tragi-comedy of Man frustrated by success?…Who has left Mankind without a vision? The predictable part of the future may be a job for electronic predictable, which is largely a matter of free human choice, is not the business of the machines, nor of scientists…but it ought to be, as it was in the great epochs of the past, the prerogative of the inspired humanists.” (Dennis Gabor, “Inventing the Future,” Encounter, May 1960, p. 15.)

Scholars in the humanities may modestly reject the suggestion that they can ever be the inspired prophets of a new age. But their scholarship is essential to enable us to distinguish the inspired prophets from the fanatical Pied Pipers.

                                    Richard Schlatter, general editor, The Princeton Studies:
                                    Humanistic Scholarship in America, in Walter Sutton,
                                    Modern American Criticism

The Arts are for all, like the bluebells, and not for the few. They should become, in some form or another, common in an uncommon way, in the home, in the school, in the church, in the street, and in the parks where man sits to think and look around. They must be brought among the people so that man may become familiar with them, for familiarity breeds, not contempt, but a liking.

                                    Sean O’Casey, “The Arts Among the Multitude”

No comments: